SAN FRANCISCO -- We are facing in the United States a moment as epic as that in 1492 when the Indian spied the European galleons on the horizon. In this new pageant of history, the blond becomes the new Native American; the Indian plays the part of the conquistador, the stranger.
Last month the Census Bureau reported that the nation's foreign-born population is at its highest level since World War II. In California, the state with the greatest number of immigrants, 25 percent of the population is foreign-born.
On the other hand, the United States is the pre-eminent world power, undisputed cultural force, the inventor, the tongue, the glamour of the world. Should we not expect to be the world's destination? Los Angeles has become the capital of the world, the crossroads city. Rome. Alexandria. London.
Today's new Native Americans do not want anything to do with such a destiny. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans think there are already too many immigrants. Regarding illegal immigrants, particularly, there is even less sympathy.
The irony, of course, is that most of the illegal immigrants, those teen-agers who will make a run for it tonight from Tijuana to San Diego, are Indians. We call them Guatemalans or Mexicans, but they are Indians.
In October 1492, the day Columbus arrived, imagining himself to be in the Orient, Indians approached. It is true that from their contact with the European, the tribe of Indians that greeted Columbus would die of the plague. (Curiosity killed the cat.) But do not miss the point: the Indian was curious, unafraid of the future.
Today, the new Native Americans in the U.S. seem only afraid of the future. They fuss, complain. A Mexican-American border patrolman in San Ysidro whose job it is to protect our sovereign border from the feet of trespassing adolescents, this man complains to me about Mexico -- its dust, corruption, poverty. His grandfather fled the Mexican Revolution; now Mexico keeps inching northward.
But the patrolman should understand that borders are two-way affairs. For every incursion by Mexico, the United States has moved southward, transforming the politics of Mexico, the entertainment of Mexico, sending evangelical missionaries, exporting pop despair.
A few months ago, Gov. Pete Wilson cheered many of his fellow Californians when he told a Mexican government official to "butt out" of the debate over Proposition 187. I only wonder: Has any American politician ever apologized to Mexico or to Latin America for the way our drug appetite has destabilized our southern neighbors?
Blacks in Watts will tell you that the new immigrants are taking their jobs, raising rents in the neighborhood, transforming Watts from black to brown. The hard truth is that foreign-born blacks from Miami to New York are out-performing the native-born.
Too many immigrants
Peter Brimelow, an Englishman who became a Canadian, then an American, thinks that there are too many immigrants in the United States. And he is more than frank. In his recent book, "Alien Nation," Mr. Brimelow insists that America is European in its culture and character and must remain so. Asians, meanwhile, are becoming the predominant population at the nine campuses of the University of California.
In New York and Washington, newspapers and networks still speak of a black and white America, the old chessboard. A few blocks from where I live in San Francisco, the Richmond district has filled with Russian and Chinese immigrants. What is the nature of this Sino-Russian meeting?
NBC (or is it ABC?) reports that some percentage of black Americans thinks O.J. is innocent while some other percentage of whites . . . Meanwhile, I wonder what goes on at my neighborhood laundry where Korean owners work alongside their Mexican workers. What sorts of tensions and new understandings are taking place in the new America?
All over Los Angeles you see the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- a tattoo, a mural, a votive candle, an image even in yuppie Malibu houses. Mexicans believe that in 1531 the Virgin Mary (disguised as an Aztec princess) appeared to an Indian. Indians have always liked the story. It is especially astonishing because, already in 1531, it reversed the logic of colonialism: the Virgin Mary sends the Indian to convert the Spanish bishop in Mexico City.
The new America
In the new America, Guatemalans are singing Lutheran hymns. Blond Native Americans are retiring to Sedona, Arizona, to commune with pre-Columbian spirits.
My barber jets off on a weekend tourist package to Costa Rica. Middle-class tourism makes the once remote world accessible. Businessmen sit in front of the plane headed for Jeddah or Jakarta. We Americans scorn the doddering Chinese leaders who resist fax machines and cyberspace, clinging to the Great Wall.
Ex-Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, meanwhile, heads a commission on immigration. She promises reform. She assumes control of the border. But all over the world peasants are on the move -- just like middle-class tourists and businessmen. Do we imagine that we can keep all the peasants of the world under control?
Thai peasants labor in sweat shops in the very center of Los Angeles. It should not surprise us. What was apparent on the TV screen during the 1992 riots was that L.A. had become a Third World city. It looked like brown and black Panama City on the screen. If that is shocking to you, then reform the world. Do not expect to live in a world capital isolated from the world.
In the early post-Columbian centuries, the choices given to the Indian were retreat (the reservation model) or engagement with history. In Mexico, the Indian survived by learning Spanish; the Indian even conquered. Spanish is today an Indian language. Mexico has become the linguistic capital of the Spanish-speaking world. And if perhaps the Catholic priest pushed the Eucharist down the Indian's throat, perhaps the Indian swallowed the priest. The center of Roman Catholicism today is Latin America, not Madrid or Barcelona where the churches are tourist attractions.
The new reservation
Every day there are signs of breakdown. Separate cafeteria tables at the local high school -- skins, gays, surfers, Chicanos, etc. Californians blame Chinese immigrants for importing tuberculosis. Skinheads abandon California for Idaho -- the new reservation. We are in each other's faces. We are on each other's minds.
But everywhere too there are signs of a new world forming. Children are being born (of two, three, four races) who look exactly like none of their grandparents. They are beautiful children.
By the 18th century, the mixed-race Mexican, the mestizo, had become the predominant population of Mexico, outnumbering the "pure" Indian or European. Mexico, in that way, became the prophetic nation of the Americas. In the United States there was no comparable marriage. To survive, Indians fled to reservations.
Today Hollywood sentimentalizes the dead Indian. Environmentalists have turned the dead Indian into a mascot. Meanwhile, in the new America, Indians from Latin America are having babies and then more babies. This is one of the reasons why the immigrant population is so large: Blond Native Americans are having fewer and fewer children.
It was Jose Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher, who celebrated the Mexican as "la raza cosmica," the prophetic achievement of the Americas. In California now it is happening. Africa is meeting Asia. America is discovering the Americas. Indians are trespassing borders. The new Native Americans -- blond, black, brown -- ponder the future.
Richard Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation," writes regularly for Pacific News Service.